What the World Needs Now is J. D. Salinger

A rambling, emotional essay that I wrote in 2009 on how the world needs J. D. Salinger.

(2019 EDITOR’S NOTE:  My first attempt at a blog had only this one article.  It’s a little bit on the rambling side of things and includes some emotional hyperbole.  Some things have changed in our world since 2009, but I still think this is a good read for those who are interested.)

Originally published June 8, 2009

What the world needs now is J.D. Salinger is what I want to say, but how do I convince a world that is so cavalier about Christ and Buddha and politics and, God knows, the important things?  American Idol became a sensation, but Americans, especially, tend to ignore writers and their messages.  The poor literary culture in the States is another topic all together, and one that I’ll have to go into at another time.  However, it’s worth saying that almost no writer achieves the level of a pop idol.  Shouldn’t J.D. Salinger be more important to our culture than, say, Britney Spears?

It seems, though, that Salinger wants to hide in his house and never speak to us again.  So maybe it’s his own fault that the doors on Salinger have closed for most people.  But really, where did the man go and why?

You can still find him in the four volumes published by Little, Brown.  And The New Yorker has made all their back issues available online, so why don’t you give “Hapworth 16, 1924” a try?  I’d start with his other books, though, if I were you.  Get to know Seymour Glass before you read his letter.

J.D. Salinger has only put out four books.  And the terrible but wonderful thing is that what’s in those eight hundred or so pages can’t be stuffed into this jar of an essay.  In fact, what’s in those eight hundred pages is much more than eight hundred pages should dare to hold.

There’s life, a scathing review of society, religious discussions and musings, hope and despair, and a treatise on writing.  And of course, there’s Salinger’s own messiah figure:  Seymour Glass.  I won’t be covering all of that here.

I suppose we should start with the obvious:  The Catcher in the Rye.  This is the novel that most people have either read or heard of.  Volumes could be written about this book alone.  It’s the book that I’ve read the most times, and every time I read it, I notice a new level or a new light.  It’s like revisiting a vacation spot you haven’t been to in a while or going back to that place in a different season from the last time you were there, you notice changes and differences that you probably didn’t expect to see, except with reading a book, it doesn’t change at all—not one word.  It’s you who’s changed.  Yes, that’s obvious and yes, that’s cliché, but it’s also a sign of true art.  It can be revisited and give the audience something new every time.

I recently read Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, which I hated and enjoyed at the same time.  In the book, the main character calls Holden Caulfield depressing and suggests he’s quite a loser.  And I think therein lies a major problem:  our society has reached a point where teenagers hate Holden Caulfield.  While I’m sure that not every reader has embraced the character, to belittle his importance is damaging.

What we need to do is berate and call into question the unspoken rules and traditions of society.  We need to champion and protect the innocent and the children.  No one is pure, and to think we can keep everyone from harm, from falling off a cliff in a crazy field, is mere fantasy, but having an ideal is important.  To call Holden depressing is surely missing the point.  He questions everything and everyone around him.  He’s the catalyst for Salinger, and a passage in “Seymour: An Introduction” even alludes that Holden was a stand-in for Seymour, Salinger’s most championed character.

Now, does Holden act as phony as those he criticizes?  Does that make him a hypocrite?  Certainly, but if you don’t realize that we’ve all been phony and hypocritical, then you’re not facing the truth.  And if we’re not being honest with ourselves, then we are surely doomed.

We all need to get our heads out of the sand.  Sure, the wearisome drudgery of daily life can blind us, but not pursuing the truth won’t help us.  I would like to think that Salinger would agree.  I would like to think Salinger is hiding in his New England house because of his disdain for the willfully ignorant.  The best way to face the truth, to find the truth, is with open and lively discourse.  I truly believe that’s what Salinger wanted, but when the critics attacked his stylistic choices, he retreated.  I can’t speak for the man, and neither will he.  Is it wrong for him to be in hiding?  He has the right to hide, just as you and I do, but shouldn’t we try to make the world a better place?

Like Holden, I have fantasies, too, so there’s a good chance Salinger doesn’t give one hot damn about what I’m writing here. (2019 EDITOR’S NOTE: I don’t have any clue what I meant by the previous sentence.) The ones who change the world, don’t live by the same customs and traditions that everyone else does.  Salinger was and is a rule-changer.  You have to stick out if you want to change anything.

There are people who do question society, but many of them are being too Holden-like.  They fail to put themselves in the shoes of the other side.  And one of the biggest perpetuators of this is the religious community.  I don’t say this lightly.  Religions and beliefs shouldn’t be dismissed as fiction or fairy tales, because who in the world knows all the answers for sure?  No one.

The religious discourse (especially in the U.S.) has turned into no discourse at all.  The arguments and slogans and rants have turned into the same as political arguments:  canned, unchanging philosophies with no thought or compassion.  Yes, that’s a blanket statement that is not true for every individual believer or seeker, but it is true for those who have the loudest voice, who claim to speak for God.

If you’re going to speak for God, you better know your heaven from hell and you better speak the truth.  Lies can be beautiful, too, but I like to think that John Keats taught me all I need to know about truth.  Truth is beauty after all.  Still, questions and discourse are necessary.

Salinger never claimed to speak for God that I know of.  He never needed to.  He gives more religious insight as a mere fiction writer than all the churches I ever went to for all those years.  Something is seriously wrong with that. (2019 EDITOR’S NOTE: I finally found some religious speakers with great insight since I wrote this essay long ago.  For example, I learned a lot from Chuck Missler, his Biblical commentaries, and his other works.  Great stuff that I highly recommend.)

Yes, the world needs Salinger, if for the only reason that he’s not afraid to talk about religion.  You question God these days and people attack you.  You say you believe in God these days and people attack you.  Everyone is so damn scared.  Decisions should not be made and life should not be lived by fear.

Salinger wasn’t afraid.  Maybe now he is, who knows, but not then.  Some of his stories aren’t even stories—they’re merely essays in the guise of fiction.  (See “Seymour: An Introduction”.)   We need some real discussion in this country and in the world.

I’m sure many will be put off by this essay or attack me for whatever reasons you have.  But I see where my country and the world are going and I don’t like it.  So what I’m doing here is grabbing you by your shirt collar and shaking you in desperation to know that you feel the same way.  We’ve failed and we need to do something about it.  Surely, you know that I know I’ve been a phony and a hypocrite.  I’ve constantly failed at all Salinger brought to my attention:  everywhere we step is Holy Ground and the person next to me could be Christ Himself, so treat him as such . . . and there’s so much more.  How can I sum up all that is Salinger with a few flimsy words?

Let’s start again.  And let’s start with the words of Zooey Glass:  “. . . at least I never tried, consciously or otherwise, to turn Jesus into St. Francis of Assisi to make him more ‘lovable’—which is exactly what ninety-eight per cent of the Christian world has always insisted on doing.”  I never heard anything truer.  And you?  If you disagree, that’s okay, but let’s talk about it without calling names.  Let’s have a civilized discussion about this world we share.  With religion, it’s hard to do, I know.  Please don’t let it turn ugly.  The Internet has a way of turning people ugly.

Read Salinger.  Just read him.  I’ve had many feelings on Salinger throughout the years.  I’ve always thought he was important.  I’ve also selfishly wished him dead—no threats or ill will meant—but I wanted him to pass away so that all that he’s written and not released thus far could be published.  Imagine all those treasures that are yet to be read. (2019 EDITOR’S NOTE: Still waiting and still hoping. LINK)

I came to a point where I realized I shouldn’t criticize him for holding onto what he has done.  I don’t understand what he’s thinking or where he’s coming from.  To me, at times, he looks to be the selfish one.  The man has a gift, and if you have a gift, the last thing you should do is hide it from the world.  It’s a sin and a tragedy.  But who am I to complain and demand something that is not mine to possess?  Salinger’s four books and uncollected work are more than enough to wake and confuse my soul.  It’s more than enough art to demand from any one person.

I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t say I wanted more.  The world needs more, but why give it to them if they’re not even paying attention to what they already have?

Somewhere in the middle of this, I realized that I’m writing this for myself, and it must be this way.  For what the world needs, I need.  And I wrote this with all my heart, and somewhere Seymour Glass would be proud of me for that.  The truth is I’m dying in the rut of daily life and so is much of the world.  I don’t want the world to die before I do, so I’m shouting and it makes me feel alive and good.

But I’ll soften my voice for you, my friend.  Just at the end here.  I don’t want you to think that I have so much anger that I can’t get along with other people.  I can.  And I wanted to congratulate you and ask you one or two small favors.  First, congratulations on reaching the end of this rant of an essay.  It means what I’ve said here is at least digestible.  Second, if you don’t mind, please check back to read the things I post here and leave comments if something strikes you.

That other favor?  Do some reading.  J.D. Salinger has some great books that might interest you.  And if you’d really like to get to know Salinger better, please head over to the Dead Caulfields website (www.deadcaulfields.com).  The anonymous caretaker there will do a fine job of showing you around Salinger’s world—definitely much better than I have. (2019 EDITOR’S NOTE: The “anonymous caretaker” there is Kenneth Slawenski and he’s written a great biography on Salinger.)

So, take care and see you again.

MORE OF MY SALINGER ARTICLES:

What the World Needs Now is J. D. Salinger – a rambling, emotional essay I wrote in 2009

Five Rumored New Salinger Books Ranked – what are my most anticipated of the rumored new books?

J. D. Salinger is Dead – an original short story

New Salinger Covers – what I think of the new covers issued for Salinger’s 100th anniversary

Where to Start with J. D. Salinger – if you’ve never read the man’s work before and want to know where to begin

The Best J. D. Salinger Quotes – my favorite quotations from his four main books

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